The Push to Purity

As a Christian, we have declared something intentional upon ourselves. We have branded our identity in something far above our own understanding by choosing to take Jesus’ teachings and apply them to our lives, allowing them to guide our behavior. There is an inherent responsibility to this unanswerable to more liberal, mainstream culture. We are responsible to Him.

Matthew 15 relays Jesus’ account of what defiles a person, “what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person … for out of the heart comes evil thoughts, murder, anxiety, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person” (v. 18-20). Therefore, the condition of our heart is of paramount importance to Jesus, not what we may or may not consume. This kind of temple imagery in the New Testament reinforces the Old Testament’s laws surrounding purity of all kinds. In Jesus’ society, purity equaled holiness. Our bodies are temples of God - consecrated ground that He has made. I believe that our bodies are eternally His, even within a marriage. Therein, I don’t believe purity and celibacy to be mutually exclusive. One can be pure but not celibate and vice-versa. Neither one can claim to be the making or full representation of one’s faith.

Conservative sexual values are usually only found within non-secular groups. Different denominations have their own rules or convictions surrounding this topic as well, one of which is mainstream Evangelical Christianity’s Purity Movement. This movement is one of the greatest social control mechanisms within one of the greatest social control organizations - religion. Specifically, Evangelical Christianity has taken up the torch of premarital celibacy in almost a militant way. Created to uphold Christian ethics and morality, it places virginity above all other Christian virtues and directly associates that as corollary to your relationship with God or lack thereof. Instead of simply upholding the basic Christian tenant of not engaging sexually before marriage, the Purity Movement adds in extra-Biblical rules for dating, dress, parental engagement, etc. Intimating that a girl is somehow “damaged goods” if she has fallen short, the foundation of faith is therefore affected. The lens by which that girl views herself is changed, and a developing self-image of guilt and shame is sure to follow. This creates an image of God as a parent who is perpetually hard to please, a picture that all-too-often becomes unhealthy and serves to ostracize one from a relationship with her Creator. This depiction of God is one I feel to not be entirely accurate, especially not within Biblical depiction of God’s view on sex.

Considering the sociological framework of the Old and New Testaments, celibate holiness is something completely common and used even within marriage. This is not to say that sex itself was seen to be unclean otherwise, but that certain holy places or events called for the kind of self-denial inherent in celibacy. The argument seems to be more of temperance, the third of four cardinal values in Christian ethics. The Bible is redundantly clear on the fact that abstinence, in many areas, leads to greater intimacy with God. Through the denial of one’s self, increased wisdom and awareness can occur.

This idea of co-consecration within a marriage is viewed beautifully within 1 Corinthians 6:12-20, “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself? Shall I then take the members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute? Never! … Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body. Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own.” Who we join ourselves with ultimately becomes a part of us, to our benefit or detriment.

Our sexual purity in or outside of marriage should ultimately lead and inspire others to a similar way of living, if they should so choose. Christ did not isolate. He included. In doing so, he drew people of all kinds to him and inspired a more intentional way of living. The Evangelical Purity Movement seems to have the opposite effect to Jesus’ ministry model. It sets apart. It ostracises. It shames. Simply, it is not missional. Arguably, it even simulates the ubermensch mentality of the German Arianism movement, creating a standard of perfection by which to cleanse and purify a group of people. Therein, the desired traits would become more prevalent over time as the undesirable were flushed out through social control. This is not the way to lead others to God, nor is it the way to inspire healthy sexuality.

                  Prayer | Maintaining as much of one’s purity as possible before marriage affects all areas of one’s faith, especially their prayer life. Most women pray for their future husbands more than they pray to be shaped into a godly woman who might attract one. For a portion of any young Christian woman’s adolescence, her prayer life might be almost entirely driven by this desire. Depending on her personal theological or church community, these prayers may ask God for different things - perhaps, as the documentary references, the prayer would be to “not die before having sex” or it could be a prayer for God to make the first partner you date to ultimately be your spouse.

                  Marriage | I feel that purity is still an important virtue inside of a marriage. This is one of the reasons that the use of porn is so corrosive to a bonded life with someone. Maintaining one’s purity alongside another person is a dance both in and outside of marriage. What is acceptable to one person may not be to the other, desires may not align, priorities may shift. The Judaic wisdom book of Sirach confirms the idea of personal temperance within a marriage, emphasizing that excess was harmful, not only in that it might lead to sexual engagement with prostitutes and other men’s wives; it was also seen as harmful within one’s own marriage. It led to lack of control and so to behavior which brought shame on one’s self. Like the excess consumption of wine, excess sexual passion can lead to a lack of proper wisdom or decision-making. This idea of continuing to monitor one’s sexual appetite and tendencies within a marriage does not necessarily run parallel to the modern Evangelical church’s unspoken but implied message that sexual desire should be quelled outside of marriage and unleashed within it. Ex: women are to be chaste and pure figurines outside of marriage and willing frequent sexual participants inside of marriage. As if marital vows somehow activate something for the woman that was otherwise asleep, like Sleeping Beauty.

                  Dating | Purity within dating is perhaps the most difficult area to navigate. According to the Evangelical purity culture, women are seen to be the sole stewards of men’s self-control. When dating especially, women’s bodies are to be covered as much as possible as to avoid male lust. Also, celibacy is paramount above all other virtues. The purity culture makes it clear that if a woman has sexual relations before marriage, she is broken and must be therefore redeemed by God if He so chooses. Women are also not to have any type of sexual desire prior to marriage. They are to be chaste, virtuous, and quiet - sitting in wait of their future husband to unlock anything to the contrary.

                  Celibacy | The idea of purity in relation to celibacy is two-fold. It points to a woman’s character as well as to her relationship with God. The issue within the purity movement is that no designation is made for a woman who has consented to sexual relations outside of marriage and one who has not. Either way, the woman is left to carry the guilt and shame of “failing God” in some way if she has been unclean, and yet she still needs to try and move forward in her sexual identity functionally, usually without tools or equipping on the part of the church. A woman could be chased out of her church family for behaving in an unchaste way, the Church using fear as the driving motivator, not God (1 Timothy 1:7). Sexual repression, dysfunction, and humiliation are all potential byproducts of this kind of response.

                  Sexual promiscuity outside of marriage is both self-destructive and unbiblical in nature. Today’s culture pervades multiple sexual experiences in order to assert sexual autonomy, which is ultimately corrosive to sexual and emotional health. Religion serves as a counterbalance to this, the Evangelical Purity Movement being an extreme response and arguably just as damaging. Idling somewhere between the two, I ultimately see the personal expression of sexuality as a choice to be made, either within or independent of a theological framework. When mainstream society or religion step into overly-control or influence personal freedom in this area, the negative effects are prolific. As Christians, we are called to use prudence, courage, temperance, and justice to moderate our lives and behaviors. Therein, purity is not a movement or response seeking to control one group, it is a constancy in our lives that creates space for holiness.